TMZ Sports released Monday a new video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice hitting his then fiancée, now wife Janay Palmer so hard she bangs her head on the side of the elevator before falling to the floor, unconscious. It’s an image that many had imagined before the video’s release: Rice was charged with aggravated assault after the February incident. At the time, TMZ released a different video that showed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. Those who watched the video didn’t have to see it happen to know that she had been punched.
The initial video and arrest got Rice a slap on the wrist from the NFL: a two-game suspension. The new footage has compelled the league to suspend the running back indefinitely and the Ravens to drop his contract.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted in August that he had made a mistake by giving Rice such a light suspension initially and outlined new rules on domestic violence for the NFL. But it took this new footage for the NFL to put down its foot with Rice. Clearly the video packs a strong emotional punch. But should we be watching it?
Increasingly, clicking on links on your favorite social-media platform has become a moral conundrum. In the past week, Internet users have been faced with the question of whether to watch a journalist being beheaded or whether to peek at hacked nude pictures of Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence. The same question arises for the brutal video of Rice: though it demonstrates the realities of domestic violence, it also may harden us to it.
Ruth Glenn, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, believes the video can help spread awareness. “I think for people who want to understand what domestic violence is, this is a video that you would look at because that’s exactly what it shows,” she says. “But for people who are viewing it for morbid curiosity, that’s not helping our cause at all.”
In the darkest corners of the Internet, people are already making jokes about the video. And even those viewing it for the “right reasons” may become callous to its brutishness. “The first time you see something like that it’s shocking but through repeated exposure, you can become desensitized to it,” says Brad Bushman, a professor at the Ohio State University who has studied violence in the media for 30 years. “It’s a double-edged sword.”
However, Bushman points out, if the video is put in the right context, we shouldn’t worry about people watching it. “The difference between this and the entertainment media that you see in television and movies is that it in no way glorifies the violence. It doesn’t sugarcoat the issue and hopefully it can raise awareness,” he says. “When violence is portrayed as justified, it’s more likely to increase aggression afterwards than when it’s portrayed as unjustified. This is clearly unjustified violence.”
That was porn star Christy Mack’s theory when she tweeted photos of herself in the hospital in August after an alleged attack from her mixed-martial-arts fighter ex-boyfriend Jon Koppenhaver, a.k.a. War Machine. Along with the pictures, Mack posted graphic description of the physical abuse she endured.
But in that situation Mack had agency: she chose to share the photos with the world. Palmer did not choose to share this video. Though she has not yet made a statement on the new footage, she did go on to marry Rice. After the initial incident, some commentators jumped to blaming Palmer for the incident, implying she in some way provoked Rice. The same is liable to happen again as this video spreads.
So it’s important if we choose to watch this video — and it is important to see what domestic violence really looks like — that we remember that Palmer is not a pawn in a greater debate over domestic-violence issues but a wife in love with a husband who hit her. “For some who don’t understand domestic violence it may be hard [to remember Palmer is the victim],” Glenn says. “But I am certain that she has fallen in love with Mr. Rice, and it is not surprising after such an assault that she would still be in love with him. I hope people will take a moment and reflect on the emotions you feel in a relationship before passing judgment on her.”